The Democrats are weeks away from a midterm thumping that wasn’t supposed to happen, and the liberal mind is desperate for a narrative, a storyline, something to ease the pain of losing to a ragtag band of right-wing populists. Something that explains the Tea Parties — and then explains them away.Well, there are a couple of ways to think about this.
In one sense, Douthat is almost certainly right about some part of the liberal reaction. No one loses an election and immediately concludes: the people were right, and I was wrong. Much more likely are claims that the other side cheated (either literally, as in recent conservative claims about ACORN or, in 1996, foreign money); claims that the other side were unprincipled, ruthless, demagogues (heard quite a bit in 1992 and 2008); or claims that our side mishandled the whole thing, and if they had only listened to me and been more conservative or less conservative or run just the right ads or used this line in the debate or embraced this issue or tactically retreated on that issue then things would have been different. I'm using GOP examples of losses just to remind everyone that these are universal reactions to losses, and I've seen all of them so far as the Democrats prepare to respond to their losses in November. So fair enough. There certainly are Dems, for example, who are writing off their losses as proof that the American people are just too stupid/racist/whatever for good government, and it's fair to call them on that.
On the other hand, another thing that goes on is an honest attempt to understand what Tea Partyism is all about -- not to dismiss it, but to figure out what it is and what it isn't. Count me firmly on Drum's side of this: Tea Partyism is simply a manifestation of how large numbers of conservatives react to the fact of a liberal Democrat in the White House. That doesn't mean that they are not real people (indeed, that's true regardless of how much funding or organizational support they get from large conservative donors). It doesn't mean that their concerns are not real, or that they are not a significant political force. Explaining something doesn't mean explaining it away.
Now, Douthat wants people to believe that Tea Party activists are driven not by a Democrat in the White House, but by issue idealism around the issues of "bailouts, deficits and spending." Is that true? Well, first of all, without far more survey data than we have, I think any such interpretation gets awful close to what Henry Farrell calls "Me, the People" thinking. There are a lot of Tea Party groups, and collectively they have a lot of issue positions, and it's very tempting to select those that the pundit wants to embrace.
Indeed, Douthat conveniently leaves out taxes from that issue grouping -- recall that "Tea" Party at least sometimes has stood for "Taxed Enough Already." This suggests that "deficits" cannot be taken literally as a Tea Party concern. Indeed, it's pretty clear that if Tea Party preferences were enacted, deficits would soar, just as they did under George W. Bush. I'd also say that Tea Party candidates -- and yes, that's an even trickier group to define, but still -- are hardly shy or moderate about social issues.
Now, I disagree with Drum's response, in which he makes the case that conservatives (Tea Party or otherwise) don't care about spending. I don't think it's convincing. Yes, spending increased under Bush, but outside of defense spending, conservatives in Congress were almost certainly willing to slash spending, including spending on entitlements; a lot of conservatives opposed Medicare expansion, which is why it was such a difficult vote in the first place. (Note that even there it wasn't deficits that bothered reluctant or rebellious conservatives; if I recall correctly, no one on the right proposed passing expanded benefits but only if they were paid for somehow). I especially dislike arguments in the form of "it didn't pass, so therefore they must not really have wanted it." I think liberal Democrats in 2009-2010 genuinely wanted a climate/energy bill, and conservative Republicans genuinely wanted a Social Security bill. Not having the votes, Tom DeLay and friends let the thing die rather than force hard choices on their conference, but that's not about conservative opposition. And at any rate, what DeLay and Bush said in 2005-2006 isn't really evidence of what Tea Partiers think today.
So: (1) we don't know what Tea Partiers really want because there are a whole lot of them and we don't have good information about it; (2) to understand why this particular phenomenon has flared up does not imply it should be dismissed; and, (3) I'm willing to accept Tea Partiers at their word for what issues they care about, but I'm not going to buy that anyone is for deficit reduction if their proposals would increase the deficit.
(Updated with several typos and awkward wordings fixed -- thanks to commenters for catching those)
I agree with everything except the typos:ReplyDelete
I'm using GOP examples of losses just to remind everyone that [this] these are universal reactions to losses,
but to figure out what it is and what it is[n't}
real[ly] good information
Now, Douthat wants people to believe that Tea Party activists are driven not by a Democrat in the White House, but by issue idealism around the issues of "bailouts, deficits and spending.ReplyDelete
That's because Douthat is a liar. Where were these issue-driven ideologs for the past decade? TARP belongs to Bush, who gave us the biggest deficits ever, and Obama has not markedly increased spending - even with Stimulus. (This is a simple fact they refuse to believe.)
The first things to notice about the teabaggers is that they are overwhelmingly white, aging, and basically knee-jerk negativist, nativist populists, who KNOW lots of things that are the opposite of reality. Those things subsume all their other differences.
Their real issue is that there is a Dem. in the white house, multiplied by 1000 because he is black.
Partly, this illustrates that the inability of regressives to cope with an election loss is far greater than that of progressives, since they really don't trust democracy anyway, while progressives do.
The whole "take the country back" message is about taking it back from the OTHER - that foreign-born communist nazi muslim, B HUSSAIN Obama.
Politics is always ugly. Now, it's dangerous.
Some of us Dems are perfectly willing to accept that our losses in November are due to the state of the economy, which was caused by universal greed & stupidity amongst lay people and Wall Street, stupidity under both Democratic and Republican Administrations and a Republican Congress (though Dems weren't all that unhappy with the particular policies that caused the problems), and the stupidity of the supposed "bureaucracy" that was supposed to oversee stuff (the Fed).ReplyDelete
I'm also fine arguing that such a circumstance shows that the American people are too stupid for democracy, but I would also argue that, since the economy impacts the election results in every democracy I know of, that Americans are just a special case of the general rule. Of course, the Churchill defense of democracy applies.
Douthat really puts his thumb on the scales by calling this "a midterm thumping that wasn't supposed to happen." You know this stuff a lot better than I do, but as I understand it, midterm elections nearly always result in big gains for the party out of power. I don't know any Democrats who ever expected the party to pick up seats in this election.ReplyDelete
But of course, if we don't we call this election something "that wasn't supposed to happen," then we don't get to come up with rationales for why it's happening.
On spending, your only example is that Republicans had a hard time passing the Medicare prescription bill. That is....not very convincing. There are undoubtedly conservatives here and there who want to cut some specific programs, but there sure aren't very many who want to do anything serious. So few, in fact, that the most we can say about a big entitlement *expansion* is that Tom DeLay had a hard time rounding up 218 votes for it. And today, of course, Republicans are almost universally demagoging Dems over the cuts to Medicare in ACA.ReplyDelete
This doesn't suggest that "conservatives in Congress were almost certainly willing to slash spending, including spending on entitlements." Just the opposite, in fact. Basically, conservatives have demonstrated over and over that they aren't in favor of cutting spending, they simply want to spend money on different things.
You're certainly right about demagoging the ACA & Medicare.
I don't know...I think we're going to disagree on this one. I think in both 1981 and 1995 there were serious GOP attempts to slash spending (even including Reagan's defense build-up in 1981, IIRC). That they both preceded electoral disasters has made Republicans gunshy about actually pushing for the cuts they actually would want, but at least in my opinion there are still a lot of Republicans who would vote for those things if they had the votes to get them. Same with Social Security in '05 -- I don't think that conservatives opposed it, they just didn't have the votes. You are certainly correct that spending went way up under W., but that doesn't mean it's what conservatives wanted.
JC: "(either literally, as in conservative claims about ACORN or, in 1996, foreign money)" too. Well, that's not exactly a typo so much as forgetting to finish the clause. But I'm pretty sure adverbial "real" isn't a typo, either.ReplyDelete
I'm actually only pointing this out because I was curious to hear what examples were going to accompany the phantom "or."
JC and classicist -- Thanks. Changes entered. Perhaps it reads better now. Apologies to all for the sloppiness.ReplyDelete
Douthat really puts his thumb on the scales by calling this "a midterm thumping that wasn't supposed to happen." You know this stuff a lot better than I do, but as I understand it, midterm elections nearly always result in big gains for the party out of power. I don't know any Democrats who ever expected the party to pick up seats in this election.
Apart from political scientists, very few Democrats took the prospect of a House takeover by the GOP very seriously until about mid-2010. The following were more or less typical reactions to this idea in 2009:
"Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (D-MD) called predictions [by Republicans] of a Republican House takeover nothing more than 'hyperbole.'" -- MSNBC, Dec. 17, 2009
"Do the Republicans have a realistic chance at retaking the House or the Senate in 2010? No, but a pickup of 20 in the House and two or three in the Senate isn't outside the realm of possibility." -- interview with Politico's Glenn Thrush, Sep. 7, 2009
"Will the Democrats lose seats in both houses? Probably, unless the economy turns up more strongly than expected. Will 2010 be 1994 redux? No." -- Paul Krugman, Oct. 17, 2009
On this very blog a few months ago, a commenter called William Ockham wrote, "I still do not understand why people are taking seriously the notion that the Republicans can take back the House. It is simply nonsense. It is more likely that the Democrats will gain seats (not that that will happen either).... I can confidently predict that the Dems will lose no more than 30 and more likely 15-20 seats."
If Republicans do retake the House, the only (small) solace I will get is being able to see these absurdly reckless predictions meet reality. Just like I take pleasure in looking back over the numerous predictions that Barack Obama would never be elected president in 2008.
I stand by my prediction. It's based on a theory with data to back it up. It could be wrong. I'll revise my theory if it is. I believe that there are far fewer voters who are "swing voters" voting on economic issues than there used to be. We'll certainly find out. Here's my analysis in a nutshell:ReplyDelete
Basically, the same people vote in every mid-term (minus deaths and disability, plus new voters). The fabled "economic voting" that political scientists see in all their regression equations was a generational thing (New Deal Dems and to a lesser extent their children). The Republicans succeeded in ending economic voting forever in the 90's by using social wedge issues, but ended up on the wrong end of the demographic pie (to mix a bunch of metaphors). The Republican party is in serious trouble (as is our democracy, but that's for another comment).
The outcome of the 2010 House elections should look a whole lot the outcome of the 2006 election. The Dems have demographics moving in their favor and the incumbency advantage they lacked in 2006. The Reps have the bad economy and the energizing effect that a Dem president has on their base. I expect those factors to mostly offset each other and the final result to be the Dems holding slightly more seats or the same number of seats as they did after the 2006 election. That would put their loss of seats at roughly 25 (+/-5). I'm slightly more pessimistic now, than I was then (but only by about 5 seats). I still think the idea that the Republicans will take the House is nonsense. I guess we will see on election day.
You make it sound like the analysts have based their predictions on the economic conditions. They have not. They've been basing them on the poll numbers, taken from the generic ballot and from the polls for individual races. The consensus is that we're looking at somewhere between a 45 and 55 seat gain in the House--which means that Republicans could retake the House and still be below expectations.ReplyDelete
The economy has been used to preemptively explain these results (particularly for commentators like Jonathan Chait trying to debunk conservatives who interpret the wins as signifying a widespread public rejection of Obama's domestic agenda), but not to predict them.